Poor Mazda. The Japanese automaker long ago assumed the role of perennial also-ran to market leaders Toyota and Honda, as its lineup of capable but unassuming vehicles just never raised the brand to top-tier status. Sure, there has been the odd product that piqued enthusiasts' interest, such as the rotary-engined RX-7 sports car and the Miata roadster, but those cars have been exceptions, and, despite Mazda's optimistic "zoom-zoom" advertising campaign, the company's recent history has been defined by the anonymous 626, the overlooked and overpriced Proteg, the runty MPV, and the Ford Escape clone Tribute. So, when Mazda started hyping its new mid-size sedan, the 6, our expectations were modest. In the most competitive segment of the market, long dominated by the very capable Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, Mazda needed something special to grab not only our attention but that of the car-buying public. Could the 6 possibly be that car?
To answer that question, we brought the brand-new Mazda 6 along on our annual All-Stars test back in October 2002. On the undulating, twisting two-lanes of Kentucky and Tennessee, the 6 impressed us with its sport-sedan handling and family-car versatility, and we quickly realized that it was definitely no 626 re-dux. It came away from that eye-opening week as the year's only unanimous All-Star. Naturally, when we extol the virtues of a car as highly as we did the Mazda 6's, we feel the need to confirm our impressions via a long-term test. Six months later, our Four Seasons test vehicle arrived.
The Mazda 6 is available in two trim levels: the i, with a 160-horsepower, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, and the s, with a 220-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6. We spec'd an electric blue manual-transmission Mazda 6s with a base price (including destination charge) of $21,620, adding $3825 worth of options, including side and side curtain air bags, leather upholstery, the Sport package with seventeen-inch wheels, and a Bose audio system with a CD changer.
During our original drive in the 6, we'd focused on its driving dynamics, but once we started living with our Four Seasons car, attention turned toward the aesthetics, both inside and out. "The stippled, squishy plastic of dash and door inserts is very nice stuff, and the faux carbon trim looks great," enthused contributor Ronald Ahrens. However, in the next breath, he admitted to "disliking the red lighting of the instruments. And the turn signal sounds like a grandfather clock." A relatively minor complaint, perhaps, but Ahrens wasn't the only one who didn't like those red dash lights, which come as part of the Sport package. "They are really cheesy and remind me of the old Dodge Avenger, which tried to masquerade as a sports car with racy red dash lights. The Mazda would be better served by the clean dash lights on new Hondas or the cool blue of Volkswagens. The red lights are for teenagers," opined a friend of the magazine who spent several weeks with the car. Perhaps he's right, as the one member of our staff who is nearest to being a teenager, twenty-year-old motor gopher Stuart Fowle, noted that "the red gauges are cool."
On the other hand, the 6's attractive but not exactly groundbreaking exterior styling was popular with drivers in all age brackets. Comments ranged from "Exterior styling is catchy. The fenders flare out right stylish!" and "The car turned heads" to "Its styling is sleeker and more self-aware than your usual box on wheels."
The ergonomics also came in for praise. The bucket seats are comfortable and well bolstered, and there's plenty of room in the rear for average-size adults. The trunk is spacious, and the fold-down rear seats add cargo capacity. Door pockets for the driver and the front passenger have a large storage area plus an extra cup holder that can hold a large beverage container. Large round dials on the titanium-look center console for both climate and stereo controls are easy to operate. The round vents are almost infinitely adjustable-they can be turned 360 degrees in their mounts or closed completely-so that the air can be directed exactly where it's wanted.
There was some mewling, however, about the performance of the HVAC system, particularly the defogger. As one staffer noted: "The rear defogger/defroster sucks. Why, oh why, is it so bad and not congruous with the overall performance of this car? I think the one in my 1989 Ford Tempo worked better (eww)." This doesn't seem to be an isolated problem, either, as we've seen owner complaints about the defogger on the Mazda 6 owner forums of various Web sites. It's been noted that the A/C starts up automatically when the defogger is turned on and that manually turning off the A/C will help. We're not convinced, but it's worth a try.